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@CVP - The Dark Side of PDAs in Marin

High Drama And The Dark Side of PDAs in Marin County



Controversy about Priority Development Areas (PDAs) in Marin has been in the news. After more than a year of growing public protest, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) reversed their long standing position and voted to remove the PDA designations from two communities.  

Controversy about Priority Development Areas (PDAs) in Marin has been in the news. After more than a year of growing public protest, focused mostly on two communities: Marinwood and Manzanita / Tam Valley / Almonte, the Board of Supervisors (BOS) reversed their long standing position and voted this week to remove the PDA designations from those areas. 


This leaves three other unincorporated areas as designated PDAs: the Strawberry Village area, the Gateway Shopping Center community in Marin City and the California Park area of San Rafael (other than the fact that in 2007 the BOS designated the entire 101 corridor a PDA, subject to the zoning and planning of the incorporated cities it encompasses).


The only other specific PDA designations remaining in Marin are in the city of San Rafael: downtown at the bus depot and at the Civic Center.


PDAs are land use zoning designations that the Board of Supervisors assigned to these areas in 2007 in the interest of promoting higher density growth and as part of an application for federal and state transportation funds that were designed to encourage that kind of development (the ABAG/MTC “FOCUS” program).


Recently, those designated areas became a part of Plan Bay Area, the regional planning initiative created by the Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG) and the Metropolitan Transportation Commission (MTC), in response to the passage of SB375 in 2008. But, again, the PDAs were not something imposed on Marin by higher authorities or Plan Bay Area. They were willingly volunteered by our BOS in the hopes of getting grants.


San Rafael was also responsible for creating its two PDAs. Of late, the San Rafael Planning Commission has vigorously opposed growing community objections to moving forward with developing their PDAs to the fullest extent possible (hundreds of units of 3 to 5 story high, high density, multifamily and mixed use development), regardless of the outsized impacts on infrastructure capacity, schools, or traffic congestion.


What appears to be behind this “stonewalling” is a fear that the $500,000 in study grant money they’ve already taken from MTC (and spent on their planning) would have to be given back if their PDAs were removed. 


However, Steve Heminger, the executive director of MTC, has already stated publicly that this would not be the case. So the City of San Rafael’s resistance to being reasonable remains a mystery.


Removing PDAs in Marin


Meanwhile, with regard to unincorporated parts of Marin, for more than a year the BOS took the position that the PDA designations were an essential part of the overall planning process and Plan Bay Area, and that it would be so difficult and potentially costly to attempt remove or revise them, that it could not even be considered. We’ve been told that potential penalties and huge amounts of “transportation dollars” would be at stake if we even considered removing PDAs, even though no one could say with any certainty how much (if any) funding was really at risk.

Endless hearings and debates, both in BOS chambers and in the press, have argued this issue back and forth. The community was put through thousands of man hours of work, organizing, petitioning, researching, writing public comment letters, and attending meetings, all in an attempt to correct what they felt were poor planning decisions and a flawed planning process.

But moreover, the community’s biggest and most legitimate ongoing complaint has been that important planning decisions like these were and continue to be made without any correspondingly broad-based notice to the thousands of tax paying residents throughout the county who would be affected by them. After all, we all get a written notice in the mail when a neighbor a block away wants to do a bathroom addition but for something of this magnitude people got no notice at all.

This failure by local government and elected officials to improve their methods of notifying their constituents and communicating and listening to their concerns about major planning and financial decisions seems to have become epidemic in Marin County government affairs.

A global problem in all this is that the BOS and even most of our City Councils and local agencies need to understand that in our 21st century, 24/7, real time, interactive world, a half inch high “public notice” published in the Marin IJ or worse, one of the Marin Scope papers, does not constitute adequate public notice or solicitation of public input for decisions of this importance.

The "Obstacles" To Removing PDAs

In any case, the impression created by the BOS and County Planning Staff has been that removal of PDAs would be a big deal and at the least require a great deal of negotiation with and “approval” by the “powers that be” at ABAG and MTC and possibly even with Housing and Community Development (HCD) in Sacramento.

This perception continues to be reinforced by the general tone of Brian Crawford’s July 9th “report” to the BOS on the question of whether or not the BOS can remove PDAs in Marin (attached).

However, in his six page report, Mr. Crawford finally comes out and states that “yes” he believes the BOS can remove the PDAs “subject to confirmation from ABAG.” We're led to believe we should all be relieved to learn this.

The problem is that all this has just been political theater.

Pulling Back The Curtain

Below is a letter (click on PDF) from ABAG to the BOS explaining that removal and revision of PDA designations is and always has been completely at their discretion. In particular please note the paragraph on the bottom of page 2 which states that "The County Board of Supervisors can, at any time, modify or eliminate all or part of the Potential Highway 101 PDA."









The truth is there never were any obstacles to removing or revising PDAs in Marin, and no agency has ever had any authority to dictate anything to us, about it.

The BOS could have removed PDAs at any time and can continue to remove PDAs at any time in the future, even after Plan Bay Area is adopted, if that happens. And there is only the "potential" loss of transportation dollars in the future but there is no guarantee than any money is actually at stake.

The bottom line is that the public has been put through intense agony and endless hours of work for nothing. My question is why.

Any one of our supervisors could have simply picked up the phone and called ABAG or MTC’s legal counsel in the past two years (as I did) and gotten that same answer. Or since most of them have actually served on ABAG’s committees in one form or another, they could have just asked.

If they had done so, they would have also learned that it is not “subject to confirmation” by ABAG, as Mr. Crawford maintains, because ABAG cannot deny removal or changes to PDAs. ABAG only asks that they be informed so they can adjust their own maps and internal documents.

The “confirmation” is simply confirmation of receipt of the changes. It’s not an approval process.

What Exactly Are The Supervisors Supervising?

This whole thing is somewhat mind-boggling. What the heck have our “supervisors” been doing all this time? Aren’t they even capable of making a phone call to ABAG on their own? Why have they put the community through so much time, stress and expense when they could have said at the outset that this was within our powers and a community decision that needs to be decided, locally?

It’s no secret that I’m a big critic of ABAG and MTC and Plan Bay Area. But truth be known, they are not culpable here.

Since their decision to remove two PDAs, the Supervisors are attempting to posture their actions as “leadership” decisions and evidence of how hard they are working for us. But they have no place to hide in all this. I guess they can either claim gross ignorance or admit total incompetence for putting the community through so much grief. 

Either way, what exactly are we paying them to do, again?

The Devil Made Me Do It

The BOS will argue that Plan Bay Area didn’t exist in 2007, when they created the PDAs, so they didn’t know this controversy would arise. But that makes no difference because the goals of the PDAs are unchanged since that time: to promote high density development focused in very specific communities. Plan Bay Area is just another funding source for this over-sized transportation oriented development.

The BOS will also naively argue that promoting property entitlements for higher density development, as PDAs so, does not mean the properties will actually be developed and there is still a local planning process to protect public interests. This is nonsense.

Property entitlements are generally considered the most important indicator of what will be developed and where. Entitlements directly impact land values (i.e. more allowable density increases the property’s selling price) and directly impacts what kind of development will be built there (i.e. the highest and best use for the developer).  

For Susan Adams to continue to claim that PDA designations do not equate to actual development is equally nonsensical. If she’s right, then all of us who have spent most of our lives developing or investing in real estate assets have been dead wrong. It’s been one of our most important leading indicators about development (i.e. profit) potential.

Further, to continue to claim that a "rigorous" process and review will face any project proposal for property within a PDA designation again smacks of either unfathomable ignorance, questionable competence or flat out deception.

Susan Adams should know by now that SB375 allows private developers, who have an interest in a property (i.e. an option to purchase), to "assume" the zoning they need for "qualifying" project proposals (49 percent affordable), then sue the county for that zoning if it's not automatically granted. And in a reversal of centuries old real estate law, rather than the developer having to argue why his project should be approved under local regulations, the burden of proof (and legal cost) is now placed upon the county (the taxpayers) to make the case for why it shouldn't.

Similarly, under SB226, CEQA is waived entirely for qualifying "infill" projects near public transportation (Marinwood, Tam/Almonte, Marin City, Manzanita). Add to that the potential financial incentives (OBAG grants) and the highly politicized RHNA quota and Housing Element approval processes, and SB375's automatic CEQA "streamlining," and a great deal of county control over its own zoning is already long gone.

Entitlements Are The First Step Toward Development

There is no doubt that a PDA designation or even being designated as an “opportunity site” on a Housing Element site list bolsters a developer’s claim to having the “right” to develop a property. If anyone needs proof of this, they need look no further than Mill Valley, where a developer is currently threatening to sue the city for his “right” to develop a high density project on a site placed on an approved Housing Element list a decade ago, even though that property is not presently zoned for multifamily development.

Still, the larger problem remains about inadequate public notice and participation in these kinds of planning decisions - decisions that can potentially change the character and quality of life in Marin, and even impact the solvency of some of our public services institutions, for decades to come.

Methods of communicating and interacting with residents and integrating community feedback into BOS decision making processes needs to change and change quickly.

But there’s more to this story.

The Dark Side of "Smart Growth"

Now that the BOS has removed half the designated PDAs in Marin, they have unintentionally placed an even greater development burden on those few remaining PDA areas: Strawberry, Marin City, etc. And in one instance those who are most in need, some of our most economically disadvantaged residents, may now be in greater risk of being displaced. 

Golden Gate Village is a 292 unit, low income housing project in Marin City. Hundreds of its occupants, who are mostly black and longtime Marin residents, are increasingly fearful that their PDA designation will create increased pressure to demolish their homes and replace them with new high density, “mixed income” development that none of the existing residents will be able to afford to live in.

Their fears may not be entirely unfounded.

Golden Gate Village has been falling steadily in its HUD maintenance inspection report ratings for almost a decade. It is now among the worse rated projects in the state of California with an average maintenance inspection rating of 59.35 percent compared to the state average of 82.74 percent (HUD FindTheData).

A full investigation of this project’s plight is more than can be covered in this article, but suffice it to say the pressure to “improve” their property by replacing it with a more profitable project (i.e. tax credit financed “Smart Growth”) rather than upgrading it, has increased.

This pressure to build only new housing is exacerbated by the fact that there are almost no available sources of funding assistance to renovate existing affordable housing, and ABAG’s Regional Housing Needs Assessment quota system doesn’t count renovation of units as “qualifying” units.

This is the dark side of Plan Bay Area and PDAs that’s never discussed.

Having gone the first step, it seems the BOS now has only one choice if they care about social equity and social justice and community based planning. And that is to remove all the designated PDAs in Marin County.

They can do it with the stroke of a pen. They only need to act. 

The Best Laid Plans:

Our Planning and Affordable Housing

Challenges in Marin

by Bob Silvestri

Available on Amazon

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